I recently returned from a trip to Spain where I spent a couple of days at the Salon de Gourmets, one of the oldest and most respected of the curated luxury food and wine fairs. Amongst my discoveries was the extent of ancient vineyard in the Iberian peninsula. Producer after producer in regions like Toro, Rias Baixas and Bierzo showed wines which came from seriously old vines – fifty year old being pretty much the norm, century old not uncommon and in at least one case I happened upon an authenticated 18th century vineyard. All of the really old vines were ungrafted and had only survived because the regions in question were phylloxera free, mainly on account of their sandy soils.
Old vines are not a guarantee of better wine, though empirical evidence from the more established appellations of France suggests that there is a significant correlation between the age of the vine and the quality of the wine produced from its fruit. An interest in old vines is therefore not simply a matter of antiquarian concern, or a special kind of nostalgic indulgence. Rosa Kruger, probably South Africa’s most thoughtful viticulturist, has spent several years discovering, identifying and documenting old vineyards of the Western Cape. Her Old Vines project is largely a labour of love: winemakers like Eben Sadie are able to make use of the information she has assembled, and in that way produce a tangible result. However, the ultimate beneficiaries are the often impoverished vineyard owners, as well as the wine drinkers who get to sample the sometimes extraordinary wines made from the grapes.
Since there is only one way to get old vines – and that is with the elapse of time – it’s clear that if a young vineyard produces decent fruit, it might be worth maintaining and preserving in anticipation of even better quality in the years to come. And here’s the rub: very few of our modern vineyards are destined to make old age – simply because leaf-roll virus is still ever-present in our vineyards. It makes sense to record Neal Martin’s comments in his South African Report for Robert Parker, written in 2011 just after his first visit to South Africa, where he had been a judge at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show:
“We must broach the subject of endemic leaf-roll virus. Its effects are particularly felt during difficult growing seasons when it can prevent grapes from achieving full maturity, ostensibly accentuating the lows of a bad vintage. Much like phylloxera, it afflicts even the most prestigious vineyards ….
Leaf-roll virus is a complex issue. The prevailing thought appears to have been: “We just have to live with it.” One or two viticulturalists actually welcomed leaf-roll as effectively countervailing over-ripeness, a useful weapon to mitigate against global warming. Ignoring the issue is not going to make it go away and whilst leaf-roll does not preclude a producer from creating excellent wines every vintage, it detracts from the perception of South Africa as a world-class wine-producing country. But at least producers have moved on from a state of denial.”
So there are a few issues: how extensive is the problem, how much of a problem is it for producers, consumers, Brand SA and finally, is the solution worth what it might cost. The first is easy enough: leaf-roll virus is widespread, and while the situation is significantly better than it was 20 years ago when I was chairman of the Wine Industry Trust and I committed the bulk of our research budget to addressing the problem, there’s no guarantee that the “virus-free” planting material coming from the nurseries is what it purports to be. This imposes added obligations on the growers, many of whom send their stokkies for expensive batch-testing. I have a theory that the failure of the industry to address the issue sooner has everything to do with the KWV’s domination of the vine supply chain up to the 1990s. Whenever I raised the issue at the Trust it was clear that the KWV contingent (and their cronies in research and viticulture) wanted the problem to be seen as the malice of nature – something essentially beyond their control. We know empirically that producers who are determined to have virus-free vineyards can achieve this nirvana – starting with ELISA-testing of vines and rootstocks and then with individual vine removal the moment the first signs of virus appear.
If everyone did this, the nurserymen would find themselves black-listed for distributing defective material and the vineyard vectors (notably mealy bug and farm implements) would have fewer contaminated vines from which to spread the disease. However, it takes real commitment, but then the problem can be addressed: ask anyone from New Zealand where vineyard virus, which used to be a major issue a few decades back, has almost vanished.
The benefits to the industry would be enormous: less frequent replantings would substantially reduce the capital expenditure the growers are forced to make when their fruit is too contaminated to be properly saleable. Wine quality would improve dramatically: the stressed fruit character of wine from virused vines may not be evident to everyone, but competent buyers can pick it up immediately. We would have substantially greater tracts of older vineyards – and we would benefit from the enhanced complexity which properly mature vineyards are capable of imparting. Finally as Neal Martin has pointed out, there would be benefits for Brand SA.
So why aren’t we doing more about it: firstly because as things stand the management of the problem remains an individual initiative: it’s not treated like foot-and-mouth disease, even though, in viticultural terms, it is a problem of the same order of magnitude. Secondly, many of the people who are in a position to manage the protocols which should be established to address the problem are in some way conflicted. Finally, inertia usually triumphs when short term costs loom larger than long term benefits. If the vines were dropping dead overnight, the growers would get off their butts and treat it as the crisis it undoubtedly is. But they still get a crop, and they can still sell it. Until we vote with our wallets – all of us, not just the grumpy few – there’s no reason to expect a dramatic change to the status quo.